BLAINE, Minn. (WCCO) — Like all teenagers, hanging with one’s peers is a simple pleasure. But for 18 girls from India, an outing to the Minnesota Zoo was both eye-opening and life-changing.
They giggled with excitement at the touch of a fish in the zoo’s marine exhibit. The girls traveled halfway across the globe to kick a soccer ball as well as a troubling culture back home.
“We’re using sports to combat child marriage,” said Franz Gasler.
Seven years ago, Gasler, an Edina native, was working in India as a consultant when he realized the inequities among India’s boys and girls.
That’s when Gasler and three other Minnesotans opened the charitable organization, Yuwa. It loosely translates to “youth” and is a school for young girls.
“Most of these girls come from villages where mothers and fathers can’t read,” Gasler said. “Most of their mothers couldn’t sign the documents to get passports, so they had to give a thumbprint because they don’t know how to read.”
India’s Jharkhand region is among the poorest and most illiterate in the country of 1.2 billion people. While the country’s boys can be educated and chase careers, for girls it’s a different story. The majority of young girls are forced to drop out of school and into arranged marriages.
“I’m sure happy to come here and play soccer,” said 15-year-old Aysha.
She was just 14 when her family entertained their daughter’s first marriage. Luckily, her family agreed to place her in Yuwa’s programs, including a select U-15 soccer team that traveled to Minnesota to participate in the Schwan’s USA Cup tournament.
Now, she and her teammates have higher goals.
Aysha smiled as she said in English, “to be a soccer player and a teacher.” And one of her teammates, Ritik, chimed in with “a nurse.”
On Tuesday afternoon, the girls and their team took to the field of the National Sports Center in Blaine for game against a much larger Minnesota team.
At the center of the field they formed a tight circle, arm in arm and chanted, “Yuwa, Yuwa.”
For an entire week of play the Yuwa “Supergoats” will show the soccer world their raw desire. Not so much on a scoreboard, but rather with their smiles.
For most of the other teams in the tournament, the chance to play soccer is an opportunity that’s largely assumed.
But for the girls of Yuwa, the chase for equality has required bravery to achieve.
The girls raised $50,000 for the trip thanks to the support from Star Sports — India’s national sports broadcast network.
Now they’re hoping to attract $300,000 to build a permanent residential center and school for other girls in India.
If you would like more information or to donate to the cause this is the team’s website.